John Keats Was an Opium Fiend, Says Prof

By McCarton Ackerman 09/24/12

The poet behind lines like "a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense" did more than just experiment with opium, claims a new book.

What was behind the indolence?
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It's long been known that legendary poet John Keats experimented with opium, but a new biography claims that he was a full-blown addict during his most prolific periods of writing. Professor Nicholas Roe of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, the author of John Keats—A New Life, which is to be released next week, claims that Keats first took opium to address issues including a sore throat, and then continued to "keep up his spirits." He first gained access to laudanum—a form of opium—in 1818, in order to administer it to his brother Tom, who was dying from tuberculosis. Roe believes that two of Keats' most famous poems—"Ode on Indolence" and "Ode to a Nightingale"—were inspired while he was on opium and that the latter "is one of the greatest recreations of a drug inspired dream vision in English literature, a poem that frankly admits his own opium habit." Keats was warned about his habit by his writer friend Charles Brown and when the poet eventually came down with TB in 1820, his friend Severn apparently stopped Keats from taking laudanum by hiding the bottle. The new revelations add to the druggy legend of the Romantics: Samuel Coleridge supposedly wrote "Kubla Khan" in 1797 following an opium-induced dream, and the stereotype of the suffering, addicted genius stems in large part from this era.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.